There is a little bit of this whole history in all of us. We are, when all is said and done, merely biological animals with a special tendency to sensuous pursuits such as sex, beautification, and pleasure—all of which roused such contrary human passions, and ascetic forms of self-control. Greek hygiene is still with us, transformed into a global industry (or rather, many industries). We still adore Roman-style bathing and pampering—and we still like to do it in crowds, like medieval communities. Early modern puritans continued the religious healing mission, and transformed our attitudes to personal and public hygiene;a process which was facilitated by the long and steady rise in disposable income, throughout the nouveau riche eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The health crusaders of the nineteenth century helped cope with a crisis and built the world as we know it;and the continuing affluence of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has preserved these gains, and greatly extended human longevity. Yet still we are worried about the future. We always are worried—it seems to be a necessary part of the human condition. It is how we adapt and survive. There are two complementary themes in this book: the material empiricism of 'personal hygiene', and the immaterial imagination of 'purity'. We are still worried on both fronts—but especially now about global environmental pollution.
We are slowly realizing that urban civilization is a very thin veneer, and that longevity and luxury are fragile commodities. When Greenpeace and various other ecological protest movements merged under the 'green' umbrella, stung into action by a whole series of rusty oil tanker disasters, global pollution became global news. A scenario unfolded which exposed the growing pollution of the earth, air, and water through human activity and its various by-products and 'evacuations', and set in motion the long-term scientific analysis of the phenomenon of global warming. Like the nineteenth-century sanitarians before them, the international ecologists and their scientific supporters found that they could only warn and influence, and that the process of reform took much longer than anticipated.
Clean water for urbanites had been a steady policy throughout the twentieth century, but it came at a price. Domestic water demand for bathing and cleaning is at an all-time high, and large water-borne sewage systems are in place;but we find we have polluted seas and coastlines with our liquid evacuations, while the building of dams, reservoirs, and embankments along major rivers has destroyed ancient habitats and flood plains, and aggravated the politics of water rights. Clean air has been another twentieth-century hygienic fetish, and Clean Air legislation was successfully introduced in the 1970s. Coal smoke was banished at low atmospheric levels, but not the chemical fumes or 'plumes' from industrial products that went into the upper atmosphere;the existence of the 'ozone layer'—and its decay—has only recently been observed. Toxic residues from industrial smoke stacks continue to destroy tree cover downwind for thousands of miles with acid rain; and the old sanitary belief in trees as the 'lungs' of the city is now projected in global terms, as satellite photography shows how commercial logging has decimated the world's oxygenating virgin forests. Clean fuels are now a hotly debated topic. The worldwide nuclear industry was hailed in the 1960s as a new source of clean electrical energy replacing the dirty coal-run power stations;but has proved to be the source of virtually indestructible contamination. 'Clean' oil reserves are finite, and have passed their peak. 'Clean' fuel from low-tech sustainable energy technology— wave, wind, and solar power, and biomass fuels—was put on the back burner for over fifty years, but is now beginning to attract 'ethical' private investment and state support. Meanwhile, we attend to our health by buying 'pure' bottled mineral water in vast quantities, and drink it out of oil-based plastic containers. By inventing new trouble-free materials, new cleaning machines, and layers of extra wrappings, we banished many germs—and efficiently swept, buried, burned, or shipped our discarded refuse clean out of sight. Or so we thought until recently, when the vast piles of indestructible rubbish mounting annually in the world's largest conurbations suddenly became a visible problem, and the scavenging or recycling industry was reborn.
We are still especially careful of what we put into our mouths— and it must be clean and pure food. Our primitive disgust responses are still very much alive. A few years ago BSE (mad cow disease) emerged on British farms, and by a short but unsuspected route (cattle feed) infected European and other herds, and entered the human food chain. Within a few weeks of BSE being discovered, a significant proportion of consumers of all classes worldwide had stopped buying and eating beef—though others 'took a risk' and limited themselves to 'organic' beef certified as untainted. The political and economic fallout was immediate: Britain was called 'the leper of Europe', the 'dirty man of Europe', 'an island of sick animals', 'the whore of an England', and probably many other unprintable things, for having generated these poxes. It certainly did not go unnoticed either, during the later foot and mouth epidemic of 2001, that the horrific piles of burning carcasses, the mattresses soaked with disinfectant washes, the specially clothed operatives, the closing of footpaths and public parks, and the enforced incarceration of farmers and their families on their land and within their houses, resembled nothing so much as a seventeenth-century plague scene.59 Meanwhile, the public image of meat butchery declines still further, and yet more children lean towards ethical vegetarianism and green politics.
There was another sharp shock for 'agri-business' in the 1990s when the European public was alerted by an international public campaign on the Internet, and rose up in moral indignation against the genetic pollution of the world's natural food stocks through genetically modified (GM) crops (not to mention a corporate plan for 'introducing' sterile GM seeds to the world's farmers) and refused to buy genetically modified foods. 'Green', or pro-nature, agricultural reformers now call for the deglobali-zation of agricultural trading by shortening the international food supply chains, and returning to local, mixed, traditional organic farming without chemicals—a move strongly supported by chefs, animal welfare campaigners, and industrialized farmers trying desperately to 'clean up their act', many of whom have turned both organic and 'humane'. But so long as global air transport is economic, 'ethical development' will have to live with modern technology. And so it has. To green, multicultural food reformers, small is beautiful wherever it exists. The 'ethical consumer' who will charitably pay extra cash to small Third World farmers (or indeed even their own small farmers) directly, through buying organic 'fair trade' products, is the latest green bombshell in food retailing. Along with all this is the rise of the Rousseauian 'ethical mother'. Organic reform has touched many areas where women are in control, not only in personal cosmetic regimes, but in family food-shopping and children's diet. In 2004-5 the young chef Jamie Oliver shook the British public with his expose of the heavily processed food (and health effects) contained in cheap school dinners;while Morgan Spurlock's film Super Size Me caused a market crash in McDonald's 'fast food' meals (and a prompt corporate revision of nutritional content and portions).
Children's health has led to another future worry—the so-called 'hygiene hypothesis', which suggests we have possibly all become too clean for our own good; and that this may be the cause of the disturbing rise in allergic and auto-immune diseases (hay fever, asthma, and nut and other food allergies) in industrialized urban societies with high standards of hygiene. The sneezing and wheezing diseases were always thought to come from polluted air; but the 'hygienic' immune phenomenon was first noticed in Germany, when an asthma study of East German and West German families found that the children in the dirtier and less hygienic East had significantly fewer cases of asthma than children from the cleaner and more modern West. The hypothesis was further tested;it was found that country children, or indeed children who have been around animals from an early age, or even those who had attended crowded day care centres, or who had larger families, had a stronger immune system response than children in towns who lived in clean and disinfected homes and streets. The immune system had been challenged at an early age, and stimulated into action. The same contrasts can be found in the immune systems of 'dirty' wild and 'clean' captive animals, such as rats. The problem, if the hypothesis stands up, is what to do about it. Unfortunately, our bodies need only the right kind of dirt: feces-contaminated dirt, or chemically contaminated dirt, can be fatal. It has got to be wholesome dirt. Meanwhile, it may be best to play safe and hold off from the 700 new antibacterial cleansing products that apparently hit the market between 1992 and 1998.60
Further problems have arisen over the last thirty years in connection with the many man-made chemicals or biological weapons used in or around the human body, as broadly predicted in Silent Spring. The very rapid fraying of the microbiological medical safety net, however, was not predicted. Antibiotics have already been redeveloped many times, as resistant strains have endlessly mutated. The most recent problem has been the rapid biological development of penicillin-resistant MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) in many different forms. In the United Kingdom, MRSA-related deaths rose from thirteen in 1993 to over 1,600 in 2004; and cross-infection is only controlled through strict and old-fashioned hygienic measures: thorough hospital ward cleaning, hand-washing, asepsis, and quarantine.61 Meanwhile, other potential physiological problems (for example, the problem of sperm count decline), possibly due to ingesting man-made chemical trace elements in food and water supplies, packaging materials, or cleaning materials, still lie in the future.
'Puritanism' in all its forms, good or bad, has to be considered a deep-seated part of our physiological and psychological makeup, and a major historical continuity. Globally, the darker side of the psychology of puritanism has also been very much in evidence in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. On every continent warring groups have used the language of the political purge, and 'ethnic cleansing' genocides have been distressingly common. Extreme religious puritanism is currently being used worldwide as a political instrument by a new wave of evangelical ascetics, whose extremely conservative world-view abhors the gleaming facade of modern urban materialism. Like the ancient Jews and Christians, for people who feel they lack everything in the present world, religious millenarianism and perfection in a future world still holds a real significance.62 As one historian of technology points out (with a little exaggeration), even in the twentieth century, 'we have never been modern . . . the modern world permits scarcely anything more than small extensions of practices, slight accelerations in the circulation of knowledge, a tiny extension of societies, minuscule increases in the number of actors, small modifications of old beliefs'.63 Perhaps Hegel was right, and there is a semi-closed system at work: the environmental, social, and biologically determined limitations imposed on the body often make it seem so.
But the past continues to exist on many polytemporal levels. We all have our Neolithic moments, although (when adults) we are often reluctant to acknowledge them. The idea of the simultaneity of time-frames in our everyday existence is a theory almost without the possibility of proof;but one particularly poignant final story seems to illustrate something very like it. The story comes from the Holocaust and involves a puzzled male doctor and a consignment of red lipsticks arriving in Belsen concentration camp immediately after the Second World War. The internees were people surviving like trapped animals, whose bio-hygienic clocks and human grooming codes had been almost—but not quite—totally destroyed:
piles of corpses, naked and obscene, with a woman too weak to stand propping herself against them... men and women crouching down just anywhere in the open relieving themselves of the dysentery which was scouring their bowels, a woman standing stark naked washing herself with some issue soap from a tank in which the remains of a child floated...
To the doctor's astonishment, they clung with extraordinary ferocity to a single talisman of their former human lives:
I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.64
In extreme conditions humans still revert to their old animal survival skills, and we should perhaps take some comfort from the continued survival of our ancient coping mechanisms. Many of these are socially trained;but the most innate live continually inside us. We are probably 'right' to let instinct guide us when confronting the microbiological world that we cannot normally see. But as one immunologist recently pointed out, what is really astounding is how few micro-organisms actually cause human disease, and how peacefully they have coexisted with the very recent species Homo sapiens sapiens. A world without bacteria, says Gerald Callahan, would be a poorer world:
This is not a war, as it has often been described, even though we have mustered an impressive array of weapons—bactericidal cribs and mattresses, toilet cleaners and counter tops, blankets, deodorants, shampoos, hand soap, mouthwashes, toothpastes. This is not a war at all. If it were, we would have lost long ago, overpowered by sheer numbers and evolutionary speed. This is something else, something like a lichen, something like a waltz. This waltz will last for all of human history. We must hold our partners carefully, and dance well.
What cannot change either, in the near or far future, is the strong human need for being touched and groomed and generally cleansed and cared for in a close physical sense. The holistic issues surrounding health inequalities and social 'well-being' are steadily turning into a future political conundrum. Social inequalities and the sense of 'unfairness' (a lack of love or respect) can create great stress and anxiety in the human ani-mal;and too much stress and thankless labour can eventually kill as surely as poor diet or poisoned water or air. In today's world it is apparently the more egalitarian societies, with fairer income distribution, that have the highest life expectancies and 'happiness levels'—not the richest ones.65 Despite the great edifices of modern medicine, classic technology, ancient religion, and modern capitalism, perhaps the core image that might be taken away from this history is of compact family and kin groups quietly and mindlessly grooming, feeding, and otherwise looking after themselves, in their own homes and shelters, for their own purposes, day after day, year after year, generation after generation. 'Well-being' is ultimately neither a fad nor a luxury, but a necessary mental and physical state.
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